An egg cream soda is comprised of three ingredients: milk, seltzer, and chocolate syrup (although vanilla is an acceptable alternative). There is no egg, there is no cream. These are perhaps the only uncontested characteristics of this iconic drink. If it sounds like nothing more than a fizzy chocolate milk, think again…
You need cold, whole milk, high pressurized seltzer (with action), Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup (no other brand will do), a chilled, wide rimmed glass (preferably a small coke glass), and a long, slender spoon. There are those that mix the syrup and milk together first and finish with a shot of seltzer. There are others who call those people fools (or worse), claiming you must start with the milk, stream seltzer into the glass off the back of the spoon (to break the large bubbles into small, tight ones), then whisk in the syrup in with a brisk but careful motion, so as not to disturb or discolor the white, meringue-like foam. It is to be gulped down immediately—NO STRAW—to ensure that your mouth experiences the proper blend and flow of foam, fizz and sweetness that some call ambrosia. Served with a side of pretzel rods, this is the hotly contested, much lamented, beloved Brooklyn egg cream. Chances are you’ve never heard of it.
I moved to Brooklyn fourteen years ago and, while I did witness a brief phase where eggs were being cracked raw into cocktails and over pizzas, I never once stumbled upon an egg cream (that I even associated eggs with egg creams was testimony to my ignorance). There was a time in Brooklyn’s history that this would have been unimaginable, when candy stores and soda fountains monopolized the street corners and egg creams were on tap citywide. As the oft-quoted Elliot Willensky writes in When Brooklyn Was the World: 1920-1957, “A candy store minus an egg cream, in Brooklyn at least, was as difficult to conceive of as the Earth without gravity.”
Where the drink came from and why it was misnamed is a typical immigrant story—nobody knows. Theories abound. Some believe it was born of the great depression, a kind of poor man’s milkshake, where eggs and cream were replaced with milk and seltzer. Others attribute its name and origin to Louis Auster, whose legendary mix delivered the rich taste of the absent ingredients without the cost. Allegedly, Auster never revealed this formula to anyone, taking his recipe to the grave and engendering an egg cream tradition of secrecy. Still others think the name may have resulted from a misinterpretation of a Yiddish phrase involving the word echt, which kind of sounds like ‘egg’ and means genuine, as in ‘genuine cream’ (but since there’s no cream in the soda, someone’s Yiddish grandfather must have been indulging in a bit of lie-tellery). The only thing for certain is, if an honest man selling a ‘no egg no cream soda’ existed, there is no record of him.
Times changed and the inconceivable did happen: the Dodgers moved to Hollywood, Ebbet’s Field became Ebbet’s Field Apartments, and soda jerks relinquished their stations to bodegas and dollar stores. Certain Brooklyn landmarks remain: The H. Fox Company is still in the business of selling an expanded line of U-Bet syrups and Gomberg Seltzer Works still pumps carbonated water in siphon bottles to a handful of delivery men. A few restaurants of that golden era also remain and I decided to visit the two that I thought might sling a vintage echt cream.
Located on Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, Tom’s Restaurant is a ten minute walk from the old ballfield (a.k.a. Ebbet’s Field Apartments). It still occupies the same corner it did seventy-five years ago, as confirmed by a plaque on the back wall: Tom’s Rest. Est 1936. According to my egg cream timeline, this means the diner opened in the soda’s heyday. I find an empty stool at the counter and sit down, counting at least three cherry lime rickeys at the surrounding tables—another popular soda fountain drink of bygone days. The menu claims that Tom’s has been serving famous egg creams for 40 years. I do some simple math—either the menus are 35 years old or there were some down decades. I order my first ever chocolate egg cream, a grilled cheese sandwich and watch the server go to work. He fills a parfait glass a little more than halfway with milk, pumps in about half that amount of chocolate syrup and stirs. He fills the remainder with seltzer from the tap and reaches for a can of whipped cream.
“No!” I say. Nothing I’ve read about egg creams features Reddi-wip. (Blasphemy! Is one response I come across later on a Chowhound egg cream discussion thread.) Without missing a step he tops it off with more soda, pokes in a straw and sets it in front of me. My first egg cream is not what I expected. A thin, dirty froth sits atop diluted brown milk. There is something dishwater about it. I take a sip from the straw, pulling from the bottom up—exactly what you’re not supposed to do. It tastes…odd. I try it again, this time from the top, plunging my straw slowly through the foam and body. It’s sweet, watery, close to room temperature and more fizzle than fizz. Instead of a marriage of flavors, I’m tasting a teary yet cloying divorce. My grilled cheese arrives seconds later with a pickle chip and a small cup of coleslaw. It is piping hot and perfect. As I eat, a man steps up to pay his bill. “I’ve been coming here since I moved to this neighborhood in ’76,”he tells the elderly woman tending the register.
“Why would you stop?” she says. “It’s the best.”
Glowing like a candy-striped beacon above the waves of Flatbush traffic, Junior’s looks warm and inviting. I stop to snap a picture and am quickly shooed off the sidewalk by a man clearing the area for a film shoot. Inside, shelves of cheesecakes line the bakery and beyond is the restaurant, filled with booth tables and a u-shaped counter with bar stools. There’s something tired, homey and sweet about the red and white décor, as well as the gentleman who takes my order. I like it here. It’s like sitting inside a Cracker Jack prize. I order my regular, “one chocolate egg cream, please.” The server disappears into the kitchen. When he returns he is holding what looks like the real deal. A white billow of foam sits thickly on rich chocolate milk, all contained in a recipe glass with delineated fill lines for Fox’s chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer. This time I forgo the straw and take a gulp, foam first. Like Junior’s itself, it is sweet (too sweet to my taste), yet tired. I take another sip. There is fizz, but it lacks a buoyancy. Maybe the seltzer does not have the requisite pressure? The drink is not particularly cold, maybe this is a factor. I take another. I don’t get it. It’s not unpleasant but is this really the taste of a lost era? “Many people come in, every day, for the egg creams,” the server assures me, and gestures towards a table. “One man comes in every day, he sits over there, he gets an egg cream.” On the Chowhound thread, many cite Junior’s as a reliable source of fountain sodas, one post exclaiming “Junior’s makes a nice egg cream! A nice egg cream!” With only two egg creams under my belt I’m no expert. But I’m no convert either. There must be a place that makes the kind of egg cream that New Yorkers still reminisce about and fight over, the kind Lou Reed pays tribute to in his song ‘Egg Cream.’ I leave Junior’s unsatisfied. The egg cream quest is not over.
by Lou Reed
When I was a young man, no bigger than this
a chocolate egg cream was not to be missed
Some U Bet’s Chocolate Syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk
you stir it up into a heady fro, tasted just like silk
You scream, I steam, we all want egg cream
You scream, I steam, we all want egg cream